Last Friday night, after a week of social media buzz and several articles on local style and food blogs, there was a line of people waiting outside Rumplings Slurp Shop, Louisville’s first and only gourmet ramen and dumpling shop. The small restaurant is nestled in the space that once held Baby D’s Bagels off Highland Avenue. The mood was festive as foodies waited for their first taste.
It seemed more like a big movie opening, or a line for a nightclub. Big cities regularly have lines out the door for their world famous offerings, why not Louisville?
Of course, there is a danger to raising expectations so high. When we finally were served our bowls, did they live up to the hype, or did they leave ramen nerds like myself still wishing a legit ramen shop would open in Derby City?
I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, some background: Last week, as they prepared for their opening, the Rumplings crew agreed to sit down with Insider Louisville.
Rumplings is co-owned by Kyle and Dustin Staggers, Chip Hartley and Griffin Paulin. The Staggers are fresh off the success of opening the New Orleans-style restaurant Roux. Paulin is their head chef at that location, and Hartley is a veteran of a dozen high-profile Louisville restaurants.
When I arrived at Rumplings, the Staggers introduced themselves but then hustled off pretty quickly, perhaps to make sure Roux was humming along, or to work on some other aspect of the Rumplings opening.
Paulin explains that he met the Staggers when they helped revamp the The Monkey Wrench menu, and Paulin was there picking up prep shifts. The trio hit it off and made a pact to help each other open their dream restaurants. Roux was the Staggers’ dream, and Rumplings was Paulin’s.
Paulin then brought Chip Hartley on board. Friends for years, Hartley was the first head chef Paulin ever worked under. They laughed and shared horror stories about how mean Hartley was back in the day.
“He was pretty ruthless,” Paulin recalls. “He threw knives at me.” They both chuckled at this before Paulin added, “I legitimately hated Chip for the first three months.”
Paulin was just as quick to praise Hartley, calling him one of the “best chefs in Louisville.” “I’m glad I can bring somebody as good as Chip in to help me with my dream.”
A big part of that dream is what Hartley and Paulin call “no compromise cooking.” Don’t believe me, check their Facebook page. “Compromise cooking” essentially means cutting corners for cost or time efficacy — like buying a stock starter, or ordering noodles from someone else. Hartley and Paulin are borderline obsessed with the concept of running a completely compromise-free restaurant.
In addition to being the first full-time ramen shop in Louisville, Rumplings’ business plan involves catering to the plentiful late night crowd on their section of Baxter Avenue. They’re open from 6 p.m.-5 a.m. Ramen is perfect drunk food, and a good shop can serve up orders as fast as a slow McDonald’s and way faster than the average pizza joint. With affordable menu items starting at $5, and the fact that it’s right there in the Baxter bar zone, Rumpling’s is perfectly positioned.
Hartley and Paulin are affable and capable; they have solid résumés and a good business plan.
But none of that will matter if the food doesn’t measure up.
First, I have to mention that on opening night, I waited in line to order for 30 minutes and then waited 30 more minutes for my food. Hopefully this time will dramatically decrease, but it highlights the dangers of a media blitz for a new restaurant: The operation hasn’t had time to smooth out the kinks.
I ordered the miso honey, one of the many vegan options on the menu, my companion ordered the Fourplay Chicken, and we spilt an order of the fried veggie dumplings.
For the uninitiated, the handmade noodles, “no compromise” broth and locally sourced ingredients add up to a tasty new addition to the Louisville cuisine scene.
I was particularly pleased with the miso honey broth, which carried a strength of flavor and a layering of tastes that escapes many vegetarian broths.
The fried dumplings were tasty enough that my normally anti-mushroom companion happily ate her half of the order, though she was displeased with the salty sauce in which they were served.
All in all, it’s a promising new restaurant, but for ramen nerds like myself, there are issues.
Let’s start with those noodles. Noodle sourcing is a big thing in ramen circles. Famous noodle makers guard their recipes fiercely. Sometimes you have to literally marry into old ramen families to learn the secrets. Many shops ship fresh noodles straight in from Japan every day because getting them right is so tricky.
Rumplings’ noodles are slightly thick, closer to the size of spaghetti noodles. It’s a small thing, but it dramatically changes the mouth feel of each bite and the way the noodles interact with the broth.
It also is traditional for shops to pre-warm ramen bowls with hot water. This assures the broth is piping when it gets to the table, and from my vantage point across the room, the step appeared to be skipped.
The broth for the Fourplay Chicken was not in the same league as the miso honey broth, and it also fell short operationally speaking. The chicken included was an actual chicken leg, which was awkward to eat. Perhaps it was meant to add flavor to the broth, but it’s hard not to feel jealous with a soggy chicken leg in your hand while the couple next to you smartly attacks thinly sliced brisket with their chopsticks.
I’m also disappointed not to see a shoyu ramen option offered, though Hartley and Paulin have promised a rotating menu, so I can hope for the future.
The final verdict is mixed. I think it’s clear Rumplings could have used a few more nights of running under the radar as they smoothed out the operation, but overall, I’m looking forward to going back and trying the rest of the menu and watching Rumplings grow into the world-class ramen shop Louisville deserves.
Rumplings is located at 2009 Highland Ave. and is open 6 p.m.-5 a.m. (or until they sell the last bowl of handmade noodles) Wednesday through Saturday. I’d check their Facebook page for updated hours before heading over.